Writer’s note: I entered the following essay for the Asian Beacon Writing Competition. It’s unorthodox, to say the least, and a few days after it was published on the site for public voting, Asian Beacon added a disclaimer.
Likely, I ruffled a few feathers.
Actually, I’m not guessing if I ruffled feathers, because I know I didn’t just ruffle feathers. No, I actually plucked them out whole and stomped on them. I should feel sorry, but I’m not. Certain people were not shy to announce what a terrible testimony I am. I tell you, Rachel Held Evans was right. There is nobody more vicious than a Christian who is convinced you got your theology wrong.
But on the bright side, Progressive Malaysian Christians (PMC), our community of rejects, had a few people reach out to us. Lost souls like us. The curious; the frustrated; the questioning. And to reach even one struggling Christian makes everything worth it. Therefore, I sincerely thank Asian Beacon for recognising my voice as valid, and for giving me a shot on their platform.
Below is the essay that got me branded a heretic:
I was born into an Evangelical Christian family. My church experience literally started before birth. While I was still deformed in my mother’s womb without an intestine, I attended Cradle Roll, a ministry for unborn and newborn babies, where the teachers talked to my mother’s pregnant belly about Jesus.
My family was a typical Evangelical Christian family. We had family devotions and prayed everyday. I remember my first Bible. It was purple with a picture of Jesus and little children on its cover. Papa could grip the entire width of the Bible with one palm and I tried to mimic him, failing miserably of course. My hands at that time were the size of tennis balls. However, that did nothing to dampen my spirits. I am a big girl with my own Bible!
Growing up, I did the whole works, from Cradle Roll to Children Church and eventually Youth Church. I attended church camp every year without fail from age 7 till 17. I have the camp t-shirts as proof.
The church I grew up in was unapologetically charismatic. In Children Church, we were forced to speak in tongues. The teacher—a burly elderly man—lined us up in rows. Then, we were instructed to put our hands up, close our eyes, and mutter “hallelujah” over and over again until the Holy Spirit came upon us.
My parents were church leaders, and our lives revolved around God and the Bible. Not one day would past without the usual Christian jargon. “Commit it to God.” “Be a good testimony.” “Rebuke the devil.” I guess we ticked the boxes of a “model Christian home”.
There was a glass inside of me, a metaphorical divide between disconnected church ideals and the real world where nothing was ever straightforward nor monochrome.
I am a hardened skeptic; always questioning. Some Christians would consider this a vice, since faith is perceived to be a virtue and skepticism is antonymous to faith.
Faith is belief without evidence. Faith is accepting the non-falsifiable.
A non-falsifiable claim is one that cannot be tested, and therefore cannot be proven wrong. Eating this medicine will cure your sickness: falsifiable. Eating this medicine will take you to heaven: non-falsifiable. Any good theory should be testable.
The older I got, the more wary I grew of non-falsifiable claims. Because, what is this God-given brain for? A shoe tree to keep our heads in shape?
I remember my first time.
It was a typical Sunday in Children’s Church. I was of kindergarten age. I probably had on a dress with a ribbon at the back, since that was my de facto uniform at that age.
The teacher had a felt board out, along with flannel cutout figures as props. She stuck two long strips on the board, one thicker than the other. “This is the narrow and wide path,” she said. “Which would you choose?’
My young self thought hard. I weighed the safety, ease, and feasibility of both options. After awhile, I shouted, “Wide!” The teacher shot a look at me. “Narrow,” she said. “The narrow path is the way to heaven!”
That was the first time a Christian told me that my logic was invalid. It would not be the last time.
My glass started to crack not long after that. I love books, and I inhaled the Bible because it was (1) a book, and (2) what the adults said to do.
Which, in hindsight, was a bad idea because the Old Testament gave me nightmares. Imagine an 8-year-old girl reading about God-ordained genocide. This group of wannabes marched into a foreign land “because God said so” and murdered the natives there, including the children and puppies.
I’ve heard all the well-meaning answers. “They were disobedient.” Here’s the crowd favourite: “God’s ways are higher than our ways”. Excuses? It didn’t sit well with my young self. As an adult, I have the language to explain my discomfort. If we justify the killings of the Amaekites, Midianites, and other “-ites”, will we also justify the killings of the Rohingyas, Palestinians, and Uyghurs?
But my young self didn’t have that language, which did my glass no favours.
And of course, nobody had a satisfactory answer to my questions about salvation. What about the people on a deserted island? Or those who died the day after Jesus’ death? Or—God forbid—belong to a culture other than our own? It troubled me how willing Christians were to just let these people fall through the cracks, just so they could hold on to their brand of theology.
I started to feel like the version of Christianity I grew up with was very exclusive. Apparently, Jesus came to die for our sins so we can go to heaven—provided we subscribe to a checklist that an analytical mind with a library card could easily disprove.
Another early memory I have from Children’s Church was of my teacher standing before us with her side parting. She said, “The outside world believe in the big bang, but we believe in Jesus Christ!” Why? Did Jesus say there was no big bang?
The older I got, the longer my list of concerns became.
Women were subservient to men; because submitting is subservient.
And there was the habit of turning perfectly innocent stories into life lessons about passivity, like the story of Ruth and Boaz. Oooff… that one left such a bad taste in my mouth.
The unrepairable crack on my glass followed the church’s treatment of the LGBTQIA++ community. The day I learned that homosexuality was not a choice, my life changed forever. It angered me how ignorant the church was, and how many people suffered because of it.
Again and again, I saw people get pushed into dark corners because of Bible interpretations, not because the church wanted to be holy, but because they were afraid of the ambiguity surrounding the definition of holiness.
I realised that the faith that claimed to be all-inclusive was actually an elitist club.
And then I got pregnant. When the prospect of raising a child became very real to me, I asked myself: do I want my child to grow up in a culture that punishes critical thinking?
And then it happened. SHATTER!!
My glass shattered, and there was only one thing left to do.
I left church.
Only after that did I take a good look at Jesus. And I mean, really really looked.
The Jesus I discovered was nothing like the Jesus of my Evangelical upbringing.
The Jesus I discovered was a rebel. He didn’t care if we believed in his divinity, or if we even believed in an afterlife. He didn’t care about our sexuality, who we slept with or in what position.
My Jesus was a radical. Jesus cared that the hungry were fed; homeless were sheltered; friendless were befriended; weak were defended.
Jesus cared a lot about the blockages in society. He cared about wealth, racial, and gender inequality. He cared that the rich got richer while the poor got poorer. He cared that one gender was held in esteem over another. He cared that sexual minorities were getting oppressed.
The Kingdom of God is here and now, on planet Earth, within this lifetime, not some faraway maybe-afterlife.
What Jesus certainly detested was the elite, much like the eliteness the church had carved out for themselves.
This Jesus made so much more sense to me.
I could not completely remove myself from the church.
One day, my husband asked me a rhetorical question: what would I do if I accidentally travelled back in time with no money? I couldn’t approach my family or friends in fear of disturbing the timeline. So how? I replied, “I’ll go to a church and ask for help.”
That’s when I realised how intertwined my life was with the church. Even after all that, they were ones I knew would have my back, like a family I couldn’t shake off.
Along with two friends, we started our own community of progressive Christians. We are the rejects; opinionated women; LGBT people; those disturbed by the church’s indifference towards social injustice. We are those that think our childhood doctrines didn’t make sense.
Most of us have been hurt by the church. Many had left.
Some of us are theologically trained, others aren’t.
We come from a whole spectrum of theological beliefs, and we are each other’s community and sounding board. When we meet (physically or virtually), we talk about life, theology, and our questions.
But one thing is certain, we don’t make non-falsifiable claims. There is an unspoken rule that the only faith worth having is one that is ready to admit that it is wrong about everything.
When I’m allowed to openly ask questions and state my beliefs, that’s where I find true belonging. In this community of progressive Christians…And in Jesus Christ.